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Drug problem

November 11, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

When "Ann" first came to Hagerstown to get her crack cocaine fix in the early 1990s, she didn't have to look hard.

Dealers brazenly sold their wares on downtown street corners with little fear of being caught.

"It was crazy. It was all on Jonathan Street, day or night," said the 31-year-old who has been in treatment for her addiction for the last five months.

The city's drug problem is different today.

Law enforcement efforts by the Washington County Narcotics Task Force and the Hagerstown City Police street crimes unit have reduced the open-air drug market, say both Ann and law enforcement officials working to fight the drug problem.

The Jonathan Street area has become "hot," which in street lingo means that there's a risk of getting caught, Ann said.

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If anything, dealers are more cautious because they fear being arrested, said Narcotics Task Force Director Bob Leatherman.

Some have moved their operations indoors and others have moved to other parts of the city, he said.

But one thing hasn't changed - demand.

In the 10 years that Leatherman has watched the problem, he said, demand has not let up at all.

And that keeps the dealers coming back here from New York and Florida.

"The demand's too great for them to say, OK, I'm going to close up shop," he said. "The old adage is, you take one off the street and two take their place."

Local people get caught up in selling drugs to support their habit.

The drug trade is also more profitable here. Crack that sells for $100 in New York City sells in Hagerstown for $500 or $600, Leatherman said.

Law enforcement can't change the economics or take away the demand, he said.

"It's a community problem. It's not just the cop's problem. It's not just the addict's problem," Leatherman said.

Addictions to alcohol, tobacco and drugs have been identified as one of the top 10 health priorities in Washington County, said county Health Officer Dr. Robert Parker.

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene estimates there are more than 18,000 people in need of alcohol and drug abuse treatment in Western Maryland.

Last year, 1,653 Washington County residents were admitted to alcohol and drug abuse programs.

The typical person was a white male adult who was arrested once in the last two years and had no previous admissions.

Most reported abusing alcohol. Marijuana and cocaine were the second and third drugs of choice.

Washington County hasn't seen the increase in heroin use that the nearby towns of Waynesboro, Pa., and Greencastle, Pa., have seen, the statistics show.

While the drug problem is associated with downtown Hagerstown, it can also be found in the rural areas of the county, counselors and police said.

Some drug dealers moved out of the city to avoid the Hagerstown Street Crimes unit, which was formed in February 1998, police said.

One operation that had moved to downtown Williamsport was busted in March 1998.

Police raided seven houses, mostly apartment buildings, in a diverse seven-block area, confiscating LSD, powder cocaine, crack cocaine and marijuana seedlings.

Hagerstown Councilman Lewis Metzner, who's also a criminal defense lawyer, subscribes to the theory that there are two separate drug cultures in the Hagerstown area.

One is made up of local people who work full time, pay their taxes, and maybe even volunteer in the community. They also smoke marijuana on the weekends.

They might be your plumber, your electrician or your dentist.

"The use of drugs cuts across every economic line and social line," he said.

Then there are the drug dealers who come here from large cities, bringing with them an element of violence.

That's the drug culture Metzner thinks the police should be targeting.

"Seek out the leeches of society, who do not pay taxes, give anything, who just suck the lifeblood out of the community," he said.

Crack cocaine is most associated with crime because the addiction is so powerful that it can lead people to do almost anything to satisfy the craving, said Judith A. Brown, clinical coordinator for the Washington County Health Department's Division of Addictions and Mental Health Services.

Since Brown joined the health department as a social worker in 1989, she said, she has seen a dramatic increase in the number of patients addicted to crack cocaine.

Dealers took cocaine, a drug of the wealthy, and marketed it to poorer people in the form of crack, she said.

"It's really taken hold," she said.

Crack cocaine is a much more powerful drug than the powder cocaine that was prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s, said Hagerstown drug counselor Tim McCown.

"It's got the allure of being a $20 high. But once you hit that $20 high, you end up tearing up whole paychecks," he said. "The addiction is so fast."

At first, the high is pleasurable. But once addicted, it's no longer fun.

Many will continue to use, even if their job or marriage is threatened, he said.

"The most devastating is the breakup of the family," Brown said.

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